Outdoor Dramas: A Hit for Family Fun, Tight Budgets
The house lights dim. Soft music causes a hush to sweep over the audience. Actors tense as they prepare to take the stage.
And a 5-year-old yells, "Look at that big rock, Mommy!"
No worries. This is outdoor drama, and while the genre - born in North Carolina - draws legions of serious theater lovers each season, its more laid-back atmosphere makes it perfect for families with younger children.
Since its inception, The Lost Colony has played at The Waterside Theatre in Manteo in Dare County. In 1587 a group of 117 men, women and children arrived on the shores of Roanoke Island and established a settlement on a site very near the current location of the outdoor theater. All of the settlers had vanished by the time new supplies arrived in 1590. Photo courtesy of Bill Hartlove
Wide audience appeal
North Carolina boasts 13 outdoor drama venues, including Roanoke Island, where the nation's oldest and longest running outdoor symphonic drama, The Lost Colony, celebrates its 75th season this year. The production, about England's earliest permanent colony in the New World, opened June 1 in Manteo's Waterside Theatre.
Outdoor dramas have a distinctive allure. Full-length performances are delivered on outdoor stages, usually with most or all show times at night under the stars. Many of the dramas use professional actors and actresses, yet ticket prices are easier on a family budget because they typically are lower than indoor theater tickets.
Many long-running, well-publicized dramas have multi-generational followings. Couples who attended performances three or four decades ago later brought their children and now bring their grandchildren to the shows.
"For all types of outdoor drama, the midwestern and southern states are particularly rich in the number and variety of theatrical offerings," says Michael Hardy, director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama, which is the nation's only academic institution devoted to the study and advancement of outdoor theater. Founded at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the institute now is based in the College of Fine Arts and Communications at East Carolina University and serves more than 100 dramas nationally.
Long-running plays continue tradition
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, The Lost Colony set the standard in North Carolina. It didn't take long for his creation to spur new ones.
"With The Lost Colony, North Carolina gave birth to the genre, much like New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz," Hardy says. "Right here were people who knew how to produce outdoor theater, actors with experience performing outdoors without a roof and with trees for walls, and stage hands who understood how props and sound amplification had to be different because they were affected by things like wind, night air and the elements. So when ideas for new productions sprang up, there were people who could help get those plays up and running."
Actor Andy Griffith, who rose to national fame as the sheriff of Mayberry on the CBS series The Andy Griffith Show and who died this June, helped give outdoor drama a place in the professional world of theater, Hardy says.
"Of all the stars who have played in outdoor dramas across the United States, Andy Griffith undoubtedly had the biggest impact," he says. "His early portrayal of Sir Walter Raleigh in The Lost Colony sent two important messages about outdoor drama: that it was professional theatre and that stars could be born there. Generations of hopeful young theatre hopefuls have flocked to outdoor theatres in the decades that followed and, as Paul Green wrote in The Lost Colony, "The Dream still lives; it lives and shall not die."
Unto These Hills, which chronicles the history of the Cherokee Indians, began its 63rd season June 1 in Cherokee's Mountainside Theatre. Horn in the West in Boone opened its 61st season this year, running June 15-Aug. 11. The nation's oldest Revolutionary War drama, Horn in the West tells the story of Daniel Boone and the settlers who immigrated to the Blue Ridge Mountains to escape British tyranny.
From This Day Forward, the story of the Waldenses from Northern Italy who founded the Town of Valdese, marks its 44th season when it opens July 6 in Old Colony Players Amphitheatre in Valdese, N.C. The Sword of Peace, based at Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre in Snow Camp, is entering its 39th year and runs July 12-Aug. 18.
Variety in the region
North Carolina offers two dramas devoted to African-American history: Pathways to Freedom at Snow Camp about the Underground Railroad and The Amistad Saga: Reflections in Raleigh. There are also outdoor Shakespeare festivals in Asheville, Charlotte and Wilmington.
Outdoor dramas are a major draw for the state, dotted as they are from the mountains to the coast. Despite high gasoline prices and a stuttering economic recovery, state tourism officials say they expect a successful season.
Most outdoor dramas draw regionally, which works well when the economy is tight. "Staycations" - vacations at or close to home - have been a summer staple since 2008. With families watching their pennies, they are less likely to hop on a plane to travel to the traditional family venues or drive to a far-off vacation spot.
"With many of the shows running every summer for decades and with literally generations of theater-goers, these history, religious and classical dramas and festivals have become a rich tradition for vacationers and local audiences," Hardy says. "The theaters typically offer ideal entertainment for families with a mixture of music, dance, history and spectacle. The added adventure of being in an outdoor setting, under the stars, adds a dash of magic and mystery to the experience."
Paul V. Brown Jr. wrote for newspapers for 30 years before starting his own business in Durham. His family has long enjoyed touring North Carolina attractions, and he shares those experiences on a travel blog at nearlytheretravel.blogspot.com.
A SAMPLING OF STATEWIDE OUTDOOR THEATER OPTIONS
The Amistad Saga: Reflections
African-American Cultural Complex, Raleigh
Season: To be announced
Admission: Adults $10,
Charlotte Shakespeare Festival
The Green Uptown, Charlotte
Season: May 31-Aug. 26
First For Freedom
4-H Rural Life Center, Halifax
Season: June 28-July 14
General admission: Adults $10, children $5
From This Day Forward
Old Colony Players Amphitheatre, Valdese
Season: July 6-Aug. 11
Admission: Adults $14, children $10 or $12
Horn in the West
Daniel Boone Amphitheatre, Boone
Season: June 15-Aug. 11
General admission: Adults $18, children $9
The Lost Colony
Waterside Theatre, Manteo
Season: June 1-Aug. 23
Admission: Adults $24,
Miracle on the Mountain
Sloop Amphitheater, Crossnore
Season: July 19-21
Montford Park Players
Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre, Asheville
Season: May 10-Sept. 15
Summer admission free; $5 donation suggested
The Sword of Peace and Pathway to Freedom
Snow Camp OutdoorTheatre, Snow Camp
Season: July 12-Aug. 18
General admission: Adults $16, children $8
Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend
Forest's Edge Amphitheatre, Wilkesboro
Season: June 28-July 21
Unto These Hills
Mountainside Theatre, Cherokee
Season: June 1-Aug. 18
Adults: $18, Children $8
Updated July 6 at 10:15 a.m.